THE CURLY-haired figure gesturing from the rear of the 9 a.m. shuttle turned out to be dealer Chris Middendorf, on his way to gather art for an upcoming show of the hottest new painters in New York -- David Salle, Jedd Garet, Keith Haring and others currently being hailed in museums, hyped in the media, aped in art schools and invested in by trend-watchers all over the world as part of the first authentic, transworld art movement in a decade.

Middendorf found most of what he wanted after a whirlwind tour of a dozen galleries from Soho to Fifth Avenue, and the results of that day's effort can now be seen in "New Painting I: Americans," just opened at Middendorf-Lane, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW. It is the first time most of these artists have been seen in Washington.

Middendorf's well-informed view of the "new painting" -- sometimes loosely referred to as neo-expressionism -- may or may not save viewers a trip to New York. It depends how intrigued one is with messy painting, visual chaos, high anxiety and adolescent sex, characteristics many of these works hold in common. Though most are loosely figurative, tradition is otherwise shattered in a deliberate effort to deny craftsmanship, perspective and scale. Decidedly un-pretty, these works nonetheless reveal much that bespeaks our times in their impassioned, aggressive but also confused and terrified gropings after meaning.

Common characteristics aside, it is most important to note that this "new painting" does not constitute a stylistic monolith. Even the graffiti painters here -- Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who began by spray-painting visual shrieks on subway cars -- have been tamed in different ways: Basquiat paints indecipherable, brilliantly colored images that cross German and abstract expressionism, while Haring's simple comic-strip-like pictograms, made of heavy black lines on white paper, manage to be accessible and appealing.

If there is a thread that joins the best pictures at Middendorf's -- and keep in mind, this is one dealer's view of a very broad trend -- it is a loose attachment to the devices of performance. Jedd Garet, for instance, plays out his dark, spooky dramas of human isolation in what looks like a stage set representing purgatory -- blood red and black -- while Roberto Juarez, in a vigorously brushed painting called "Time Out For Love," stages a narrative we cannot quite comprehend. Nicholas Africano, better known as a "new image" painter, not only uses a stage-like format, but quotes directly from "The Girl of the Golden West." In stark black and white, Robert Longo uses his highly agitated figures, observed from above, as solo performers in high dramas that poignantly bespeak human anxiety. They are anxious figures all.

David Salle -- the artist who made dealer Mary Boone famous (or is it the other way round?) -- seems merely to be performing for his own purposes here in deliberately meaningless superimposed images, and it would take a great many more paintings to convince this viewer that the new sweetheart of the avant-garde is much more than a self-indulgent bore. Eric Fischl's grisaille view of libidinous teen-agers cavorting on a beach is among the most unpleasant -- yet unforgettable -- paintings in the show.

"New Painting I: Americans" will continue through Oct. 16, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6. Calfee's Lively, New Images

The new William Calfee show at Plum Gallery, 3762 Howard Ave., Kensington, shows Calfee to be making the best paintings of his life. Better known as a sculptor of mythological subjects, Calfee has here turned his eye from his own imaginings to the world around him -- people in groups or alone, all deep in conversation or thought at the National Gallery cafe' or a Renwick concert. Though the compositions are locked to the surface, the brushing is looser, the colors brighter than ever, suggesting a new sense of abandon and joie de vivre. A superb little bronze titled "One Man Aiding Another" restates Calfee's mastery of that medium.

Marking Plum's fifth anniversary are several works by gallery artists based on the subject of plums, the most ingenious variation being Nancy Frankel's exquisite walnut and porcelain sculpture. Also not to be missed are the blown-glass whiskey cane and lusciously colored vase by Friar Jerry Hovanec in the crafts gallery. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 4, through Oct. 20.